As endless as PhDs may seem to those in the thick of them, they do end. I am now almost exactly one year out from my planned graduation date, which means that I need to transition from collecting my data to analyzing and disseminating my results. Practically, this means that I can’t spend the whole summer out in the mountains tracking juncos, like the last three years. I need to also spend the summer running analyses, writing, and presenting at conferences.
Of course, I can go out to the mountains sometimes. Just to see what the juncos are up to. They would probably miss me otherwise, right? I’ll just collect a little more data…
This week will be the first field excursion of the final, abbreviated field season of my PhD research. It will be busy: we won’t have much time, and there’s a lot I want to do. Song recording will be a priority, since one of my amazing field techs is doing an honors thesis on song. We will band some new birds, as usual, but it will be just as important to resight the birds we banded over the last few years. Who is still alive? Who is mating with whom?
And of course we want to find nests. This time of year, we probably will only see eggs; this presents a bit of a challenge, since it’s important to me to put dates on nests (i.e. the date of egg-laying, the date of chick hatching), but a nest full of unhatched eggs doesn’t immediately tell you either of those dates. Juncos incubate their eggs for about 13 days; we could easily check nests for the duration of our field excursion and never see any eggs laid or hatched. If that happens, we’ll use the duration of our egg-checkings to estimate the dates: if we know the eggs were being incubated for a given five days, we know they must have hatched sometime between the day after the last day we checked them, and eight days (13 – 5 = 8) after the last day we checked them. That at least gives us some information.
Some field ornithologists can age eggs by looking at how they float in water. Eggs lose water over time, and the floating behavior of an egg tells you how much water vs. air is in the egg, so you can float eggs and see how long it has been since they were laid. This requires some advance planning in terms of calibrating your float measures to your specific eggs, which I never got around to doing, so I’m left with my approximate estimations based on dates.
There are a few birds I especially want to see again: ARKM and MABY, who were each other’s mates in 2013 and 2014; AMYY, whose nests I always find, much to her annoyance; LGAG, who we banded way back in 2012 and saw last year; and, of course, any of the juncos we banded as chicks.
And I especially do not want to see rain. I know California is in a drought, but look, it can rain in the mountains any other days this month; just not in the next week. I only have a few brief chances in the field this summer. If it rains, I am not leaving. I will stay and get wet and take observations.